Star Wars Movies Ranked

We recently rewatched the Star Wars movies. We decided to individually rank the movies from favorite to least favorite, then compare notes. First, our brief thoughts on each movie individually.

Star Wars Movies We Own

Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace

Erik: Visually beautiful, but the plot drags and the dialogue is ludicrous. Like the other prequel movies, it at least has a clear narrative purpose that operates on two levels: the corruption of Anakin Skywalker and the fall of the Republic.

Eppu: Too messy all round; a travesty of writing not helped by (some of) the acting.

Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones

Eppu: Least bad of the prequels; only Ewan McGregor and Natalie Portman save the movie.

Erik: Despite its weaknesses (especially in the Anakin/Padme storyline), this film comes the closest to the series’ classic pulp sci-fi inspirations.

Star Wars: Episode III – The Revenge of the Sith

Erik: More weak plot and ridiculous dialogue, but there is an atmosphere to this film that sustains it, a palpable sense of an age of beauty and light coming to an end.

Eppu: An intelligent woman—and playing the Smurfette part to boot—is reduced to a walking womb. Yuck.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Eppu: The learning-to-work-together aspect and found family vibes with a heaping of nostalgia offset the grimdark.

Erik: A love letter to the original trilogy, filled with great characters.

Solo: A Star Wars Story

Erik: An unnecessary, self-indulgent piece of fanfiction with neither the spirit of the original trilogy nor the narrative purpose of the prequels.

Eppu: It’s just weak all round, and Alden Ehrenreich certainly can’t pull off the role of young Han. (Well, except for propping, sets, and CGI, which at least are very professionally done if not always terribly imaginative.)

Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope

Eppu: Can’t beat a classic: well edited, scored, acted, with decent if at times very concise writing. Feels a little sparse or basic compared to today’s movie plots, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Erik: There is beauty in how spare the writing and worldbuilding are, giving us just enough that our imaginations can fill in the rest.

Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back

Erik: Some great action sequences and character development, but it doesn’t feel like they all belong in the same movie.

Eppu: Darker and more desperate, again well constructed. Nostalgia helps here, too.

Star Wars: Episode VI – The Return of the Jedi

Eppu: Loved it as a kid, but the present me sees the ridiculousness of Ewoks fighting stormtroopers.

Erik: I love seeing Luke’s growth as a Jedi, both in skills and self-awareness, and I like Ewoks versus stormtroopers.

Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens

Erik: While the movie is overly focused on being as Star Wars-y as possible, the new characters are all clearly defined and well acted.

Eppu: Tries to hit all of the same spots as the original trilogy, but ends up trying too much.

Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi

Eppu: Despite its confusion on what the movie wants to be, General Leia and Vice Admiral Holdo kick ass. The entertaining side plot with Rose is also a plus.

Erik: So much wasted potential. This could have been the best movie in the entire series, but it is too obsessed with its concepts to actually tell a story with them.

Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker

Erik: An overstuffed mess of contrived events, plot gimmicks, and fanservice for the worst parts of the Internet.

Eppu: I like best the Rey plus Kylo Ren conflict-turns-into-understanding arc. Palpatine and his cronies are comically, hilariously dark and corny, which almost makes me snort my way through those parts.

Here’s our individual rankings.

Erik’sEppu’s
1Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the JediRogue One: A Star Wars Story
2Rogue One: A Star Wars StoryStar Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope
3Star Wars: Episode IV – A New HopeStar Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back
4Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force AwakensStar Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi
5Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes BackStar Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens
6Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the ClonesStar Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi
7Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last JediStar Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker
8Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the SithStar Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones
9Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom MenaceStar Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace
10Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of SkywalkerStar Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith
11Solo: A Star Wars StorySolo: A Star Wars Story

Erik’s comments:

I put Return of the Jedi first for a couple of reasons. First, I love the opening act with the rescue of Han from Jabba’s palace. It’s so well structured, gradually reintroducing us to all the heroes and showing us Luke’s growth as a Jedi. Second, I’m a sucker for any fight in which low-tech beats high-tech, and the Endor battle is one of my favorites.

I like The Force Awakens more than The Empire Strikes Back. I’ve never really been a fan of Empire, although I know it’s widely considered the best movie of the original trilogy. I won’t argue about the strengths of Empire or the weaknesses of Force, but I just enjoy watching Rey discover her Jedi powers and Finn find his footing in the Resistance more than I enjoy watching Luke run around a swamp and Han try to kickstart the Falcon.

I didn’t think there could be a Star Wars movie worse than The Phantom Menace, but then came Solo and The Rise of Skywalker. Phantom at least has beautiful sets and costumes, an action hero queen, and a fantastic lightsaber fight. Rise is a jumbled and unnecessary mess, and Solo is just answering questions that didn’t need answers.

Eppu’s comments:

Overall, I found the nods towards the original trilogy in Rogue One an absolute delight the very first time we watched the movie, and I’ve continued to enjoy them a lot despite the fact that many of them are basically direct copies of dialogue or shots. For me, it’s very close to a perfect combination of homage plus original material. Director Krennic is the only acting job that comes close to unbearable ham (but that may have been how Ben Mendelsohn was directed, as he’s great in other productions).

The strength of Empire for me is the exploration of Luke’s, Leia’s, and Han’s characters when they each hit a rough patch, which is why I ranked it higher than Return. Also Lando turns out to have more depth right from the bat than, say, Count Dooku.

Sadly, the sequels are almost as bad a mess storywise as the prequels, but fortunately they picked more talented core actors and did *not* write in an inept, ham-fisted Asian caricature. (Then again, I gather that the production of the sequels was exceptionally convoluted and involved lots of back-end drama.) Cinematographically, though, the sequels are light years ahead of any of the others, I think.

In hindsight, maybe I should’ve bumped Clones a step down and Phantom a step up—Anakin behaves so fecking creepily towards Padme it’s upsetting to watch. At least in Phantom he behaves more maturely, as odd as it is to say about a little kid, and, like Erik said, there’s pretties to see.

There’s a marked difference in quality between the original and prequel trilogies. I’ve often wondered why that is. (Not having really cared to look for an answer online, though, I can only speculate.) I do have a vague impression of having read somewhere that one reason for the success of the original trilogy was that the editing team—if I remember right, especially Marcia Lucas—wove the storylines into a cohesive, tight, smoothly moving arc. In the prequels, the core of the story largely gets lost among the bling. In a way, it feels like once Lucas effectively was the boss, it was to the detriment of the story.

Granted, we finally got the fight scenes worthy of the jedi; that, plus improved effects (including makeup and costuming), are what the prequels did absolutely right. In the end, however, they visuals are not enough in themselves to pull the prequels up from the bottom.

From the point of view of current viewer (i.e., setting aside any past significance from a technological point of view), action scenes and special effects have improved so much in the past few decades that the prequels cannot offer anything memorable. It’s the strength of the story, the characters, and the acting that a movie must stand on now. In that sense, the prequels have very little to offer me. Moreover, it’s actually rather impressive that we both ranked Solo as the absolutely last one, below the prequels—a mark of a true washout. I’m only sad that the tanking of Solo means my fellow Finn Joonas Suotamo likely won’t get hired for more Chewbacca roles.

There’s so much you could say about all of the movies. At times ranking really wasn’t very straightforward. (How do you properly gauge the messiness of the prequels, for instance. I’m sure if you were to ask me two years from now, I’d list some of the movies differently.)

We know other people have different opinions from ours; we’d like to hear yours!

Image by Eppu Jensen

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

Thoughts on Rewatching Buffy the Vampire Slayer

We recently rewatched the series Buffy the Vampire Slayer. It’s been a fair few years since we last saw it, which is long enough to forget a lot of details, so there was pleasure in rediscovering some of what made the show so good. A few random thoughts inspired by our rewatch.

To begin with, we can’t avoid the fact that Joss Whedon has now been exposed as an entitled sex pest who created a hostile and unsafe working environment on his shows. This knowledge casts a pall over our enjoyment of the show and gives an ugly tint to some of the character interactions. Xander’s puerile lusting after Buffy or Buffy’s teen crush on a two-century-old vampire are harder to stomach knowing what Whedon was up to behind the scenes. It’s not impossible to enjoy the show now, but we have more than the usual amount of disbelief to suspend.

There are other things that require a little indulgence as well. The series is twenty years old, and it shows. The special effects don’t hold up particularly well, the stunts are a bit obvious, and the pop culture references have not all aged gracefully. Still, that’s par for the course when going back to something older, and we can’t hold it against the show.

Other things date the series, too. It is a clear product of third-wave feminism, with its insistence that girly girls can be strong and don’t need boyish boys to protect them, but the series still can’t fathom the idea that girls don’t need to be girly or boys boyish at all. The overwhelming whiteness of the cast is also hard to ignore—it takes seven seasons before we get a person of color as even a side member of the cast. The show was notable at the time for showing a happy, loving queer relationship; it is notable now for crushing that relationship for the sake of drama.

Those things being said, though, Buffy is much better than I remember. The early seasons hold up quite well. The characters are well developed, the dialogue snaps, and the jokes mostly land. The central conceit of taking the challenges and frustrations of young adulthood and turning them into literal demons is just as much fun to watch now as it was then. The idea of a young woman who needs no saving but can kick monster butt all on her own is not as revolutionary now as when the series first aired, but it’s still satisfying to see a woman whose heroism is not the product of overcoming weakness but of embracing strength.

I find it hard to remember how good the first few seasons are because my memory of the show is tainted by the failings of the last few seasons. The show lost something when it turned away from the monster-of-the-week-as-coming-of-age-metaphor formula in season five and went hard into dramatic arc territory with the mystery of Dawn, Glory, and Ben. Season six has its good and bad points: the good point is the musical episode “Once More With Feeling;” the bad points are everything else. The early episodes of season seven recover some of the magic of the early series by focusing on the friendships of the main cast, but those are soon sacrificed to the First Evil arc that drags on for most of the season.

Many fans have their own personal cutoff points where they choose to mentally end the series. The end of season three is a popular one and makes sense; there is great satisfaction in watching the senior class of Sunnydale High School pull together to slay a powerful demon, and the end of high school makes a natural end point for the show. The end of season five is also a popular contender, with Buffy sacrificing herself to save her sister and the world. For myself, I choose the end of season four. The season has its weaknesses, but I enjoy the early episodes that take the monster-of-the-week approach to adjusting to college life. The ending that sees Buffy and the Scoobies tap into the primal power of the slayer brings a nice conclusion to the themes of friendship, courage in the face of life’s horrors, and Buffy’s ambivalence about her calling that animated the early seasons. In fact, I now wish that the geek trio of season six had been the villains of season four instead of Adam and the Initiative. The trio’s overt goofiness was always an odd fit in the bleak season six, and their refusal to grow up could have made for an interesting counterpoint to Buffy and the gang’s rocky but earnest transition into adulthood. Ah well—these are such things as fanfic is made of.

When we were packing up our house for our big transatlantic move last year, I was considering getting rid of our Buffy DVDs. Now I’m glad we didn’t. It was a pleasure to rediscover the joys of the early seasons, despite all the show’s other problems.

Image: Buffy cast photo via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

Rating: Babylon 5, Season 5

The fifth and final season of Babylon 5 has its problems, but it holds up well on rewatching. Here’s our take:

  1. “No Compromises” – 4
  2. “The Very Long Night of Londo Mollari” – 7.5
  3. “The Paragon of Animals” – 5.5
  4. “A View from the Gallery” – 6
  5. “Learning Curve” – 5
  6. “Strange Relations” – 4.5
  7. “Secrets of the Soul” – 3
  8. “Day of the Dead” – 4
  9. “In the Kingdom of the Blind” – 3.5
  10. “A Tragedy of Telepaths” – 4
  11. “Phoenix Rising” – 2
  12. “The Ragged Edge” – 4.5
  13. “The Corps is Mother, the Corps is Father” – 4.5
  14. “Meditations on the Abyss” – 7
  15. “Darkness Ascending” – 3
  16. “And All My Dreams, Torn Asunder” – 4
  17. “Movements of Fire and Shadow” – 4
  18. “The Fall of Centauri Prime” – 5
  19. “The Wheel of Fire” – 7
  20. “Objects in Motion” – 6
  21. “Objects at Rest” – 3.5
  22. “Sleeping in Light” – 6

The average rating for this season is 4.7, which is in line with the rest of the series. It was a little surprising to review the numbers and find that season 5 held up so well, since it is so different from the rest of the series. What had been planned as a five-season story got squished into four, then the series unexpectedly got picked up for a fifth season, so new stories had be written to fill out the time. The effects of these compromises are plain in season 5. Some of the new storylines go on too long, like the refugee telepaths on Babylon 5; others don’t have enough time to develop the depth they need, like the Drakh war. That this season holds up as well as it does largely rests on the excellent writing and acting work of previous seasons, developing characters with complicated stories and relationships still to be worked out.

There are no standout great episodes this season, but none that are truly terrible, either. The lowest rating we gave for this season was 2 for “Phoenix Rising,” which brings the telepath story to a head. That storyline as a whole was marred by clumsy writing and hammy acting. Add to that a further unpleasant turn for Garibaldi in this episode, after the character spent most of the past season and a half being mean and miserable, and it’s not an episode we care to come back to often.

At the top of the scale, the best episode of the season is “The Very Long Night of Londo Mollari,” at 7.5, a surreal and poetic episode mostly set in Londo’s unconscious as he reckons with the crimes of his past while fighting for his life after a heart attack. This episode pays off the long and sometimes painful growth of the character from cynical hack to manipulative monster to wise but broken leader. Peter Jurasik’s performance of Londo, always one of the strengths of the series, gets to shine here as the character tumbles through fear, anger, resentment, petulance, vulnerability, and finally contrition.

In other developments, Claudia Christian departed the series this season, so we get Tracy Scoggins playing the sharp and sharp-edged Captain Lochley. The character largely fills the role vacated by Ivanova and doesn’t get much time to set herself apart from her predecessor, but Scoggins makes the most of the time she gets.

Babylon 5 is, like many great things, deeply flawed in some ways. Some of its weaknesses are the result of a turbulent production environment; others are inherent in the story or come from the limitations of the creators who worked on it. Yet its great moments shine through despite those weaknesses, as brilliant, touching, even transcendent now as they were when the big blue barrel of a space station first appeared on our screens decades ago.

Season 1

Season 2

Season 3

Season 4

Image: Babylon 5 season 5 DVD cover via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

Rating: Babylon 5, Season 4

It’s an action-packed, emotional roller coaster of a season for Babylon 5. The previous three seasons of development and growth come to a head in some unexpected ways. Here’s how we rated this season’s episodes:

Babylon 5 season 4 DVD cover
  1. “The Hour of the Wolf” – 6
  2. “Whatever Happened to Mr. Garibaldi” – 3.5
  3. “The Summoning” – 6.5
  4. “Falling Towards Apotheosis” – 5
  5. “The Long Night” – 7
  6. “Into the Fire” – 9.5
  7. “Epiphanies” – 4
  8. “The Illusion of Truth” – 2.5
  9. “Atonement” – 3
  10. “Racing Mars” – 3.5
  11. “Lines of Communication” – 4
  12. “Conflicts of Interest” – 2.5
  13. “Rumors, Bargains, and Lies” – 5.5
  14. “Moments of Transition” – 3.5
  15. “No Surrender, No Retreat” – 6
  16. “The Exercise of Vital Powers” – 1.5
  17. “The Face of the Enemy” – 1.5
  18. “Intersections in Real Time” – 0
  19. “Between the Darkness and the Light” – 7.5
  20. “Endgame” – 6.5
  21. “Rising Star” – 6
  22. “The Deconstruction of Falling Stars” – 4

Various shenanigans with the networks broadcasting Babylon 5 led to the originally planned seasons 4 and 5 being squished down into a single season, and the results are visible. In some ways, the results were good, as the pace of the action noticeably picks up and gives an urgency to important episodes dealing with the Vorlon-Shadow war and the Earth civil war. In other ways, the effects were less positive, though, as the story often feels cramped and rushed. In the end, we have an average rating for this season of 4.5, down from season 3 but on par with season 2.

Given how much story had to be condensed into this season, it is particularly jarring when the season pauses for a number of self-contained (and sometimes self-indulgent) episodes such as “The Illusion of Truth,” a demonstration of how propaganda works, “Intersections in Real Time,” in which Sheridan is tortured, and “The Deconstruction of Falling Stars,” a meditation on how history is transformed into legend. None of these episodes scored very well with us. “Intersections in Real Time” is our lowest rated episode of the season, at a complete 0, for being both unpleasant to watch and unnecessary to the larger story. The season also spends an inordinate amount of time watching Garibaldi make bad life choices, which we could also do without.

But when this season works it really works. At the top of the ratings we have “Into the Fire,” at 9.5, which pays off years of development as the younger races of the galaxy stand up to the ancient Vorlons and Shadows and tell them to get the hell out. This episode fully delivers on the promise of the series, being both exciting and thoughtful, and deftly transforming our entire perspective on the two mysterious races at the heart of the series’ central story. The last few episodes of the season proper, “Between the Darkness and the Light” (7.5), “Endgame” (6.5), and “Rising Star” (6), are less spectacular, but they bring the long-simmering Earth storyline to a satisfying close.

A lot of what makes Babylon 5 great is on screen in season 4. It may not be exactly what was planned at the outset, but it lives up to the promise of the earlier seasons.

Season 1

Season 2

Season 3

Image: Babylon 5 Season 4 DVD cover via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

A Babylon 5 Reboot Is in Active Development

‘Tis official: a Babylon 5 reboot is in the works.

The Catholic Geeks babylon52

(Please read the thread for more of Straczynski’s thoughts on the announcement. Looks like at this writing many articles available online largely just rephrase his tweets.)

Without wading too deep into all of the speculation, I did glean this tidbit about the timing of the new B5:

Pretty exciting, wouldn’t you say? Of course, in the end the fan reaction—including mine—will depend on the technical quality of the final product, our personal preferences, which aspects were chanced and which retained, and whether the cast will be able to carry the stories. I’m certainly looking forward to more news on the project, and fervently wish that the casting will be successful (and quality-wise more even).

Image via The Catholic Geeks

Deconstructing the Star Wars Sequels: The Rise of Skywalker

The first two movies in the Star Wars sequel trilogy had their problems: The Force Awakens was driven too much by nostalgia for A New Hope, and The Last Jedi was too dependent on an intellectual conceit. The Rise of Skywalker has a different and rather unusual problem: it is two movies crammed into one.

Rey and Kylo Ren smash stuff as they duel, screenshot from Star Wars 9: The Rise of Skywalker

By all public accounts, the new Star Wars trilogy was not planned with an overarching plot. The intent was that each director would put their own stamp on each movie. The effects of that choice are visible all over The Last Jedi, which moves about as far away from The Force Awakens as it can without technically breaking continuity. The reaction from fans was strong, as most of us probably remember. Some of that reaction was beyond the pale, up to and including online harassment of some stars (notably those who were not white men). For a good year and a half, it was just about impossible to have a conversation about the movie online without things devolving into a scorched-earth flame war. Disney seems to have been shaken enough by the reaction to turn back to J. J. Abrams for an encore of The Force Awakens to close out the trilogy. The Rise of Skywalker slams the door hard on everything The Last Jedi was trying to do and doesn’t look back.

This about-face is visible all over The Rise of Skywalker. New characters like Rose and D’Acy are demoted to background extras; Rey’s parents are retroactively promoted from mere junk traders to scions of Palpatine; Poe and Finn get to be heroic and do things that actually matter to the plot. The Rise of Skywalker rejects The Last Jedi so thoroughly that it attempts to fit an alternative second movie into its first half. Although we’ve been told that there was no overarching plan for the sequel trilogy, it sure seems like Abrams and company at least had ideas sketched out for two more installments after The Force Awakens. When called on to helm the third movie, Abrams tried to fit all of those ideas into one.

The first half of The Rise of Skywalker has traces of what could have been the second movie of the trilogy. While there isn’t a simple breaking point where a theoretical Episode 8 ends and Episode 9 begins, the action on Kijimi makes a suitable climax at around the halfway point. We reconnect with Lando Calrissian in the first half and with Endor in the second. Ending the movie somewhere around Kijimi would leave Chewbacca in the First Order’s hands, C-3PO out of commission, and Rey confronting the reality of her parentage, a cliffhanger ending for the middle movie of the trilogy and an echo of the ending of The Empire Strikes Back.

Seeing the movie as two films packed into one helps make sense of some of its odder features. For one thing, The Rise of Skywalker is overstuffed with plot. Compared with either of the movies that came before it there are more new locations, more new characters, and a less direct narrative line. The plot even overspills the edges of the movie, with crucial set-up squished into a rushed beginning and the suggestion of further adventures packed into the ending. There is also a curious amount of doubling in the movie that makes sense if it was originally conceived as two. Our heroes set out in search of two different devices that lead to destinations: first a Sith dagger, then a Sith wayfinder. There are two planets with women who connect to our heroes’ past and offer potential love interests for their future: Zorii on Kijimi who has a history with Poe, and Jannah on the Endor moon who is a rebel stormtrooper like Finn.

As it stands now, the movie undermines its own script. Rey and the audience alike hardly have a chance to react to Kylo Ren’s revelations about her ancestry because the movie has to rush on with the rest of the story. The discovery that Plapatine’s brand new fleet has planet-destroying capabilities is similarly underwhelming with so much else for the movie to do. C-3PO’s self-sacrifice to translate the Sith blade is played as an emotional farewell, but then almost immediately undercut when R2-D2 reloads his memories; if we had waited two years between movies to get our old droid friend back, the moment would have had the emotional weight it seemed written for.

The middle entry in the sequel trilogy, The Last Jedi, for all its flaws, introduced the most interesting and challenging new ideas Star Wars has seen in decades. Even if all The Rise of Skywalker did was reject those ideas, it would still be a disappointment of a movie. In trying to not only turn away from The Last Jedi but retroactively create its own Episode 8, the movie ends up being not only lifeless but messy and overstuffed.

It is a shame that none of the new trilogy lived up to the hopes of fans. Every film has its good points and enjoyable moments, and I am at least mildly fond of them all, despite their problems. It is interesting to observe, though, that each of the new trilogy’s movies has an entirely different problem with its structure.

Image: Rey and Kylo smashing stuff via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

Rating: Babylon 5, Season 3

The action revs up in season 3 of Babylon 5, bringing both new characters and higher stakes. Here’s how we rated this season’s episodes:

Babylon 5 season 3 cover
  1. “Matters of Honor” – 5.5
  2. “Convictions” – 2.5
  3. “A Day in the Strife” – 4
  4. “Passing through Gethsemane” – 5.5
  5. “Voices of Authority” – 4
  6. “Dust to Dust” – 5.5
  7. “Exogenesis” – 2
  8. “Messages from Earth” – 5.5
  9. “Point of No Return” – 8
  10. “Severed Dreams” – 8
  11. “Ceremonies of Light and Dark” – 4.5
  12. “Sic Transit Vir” – 6
  13. “A Late Delivery from Avalon” – 3
  14. “Ship of Tears” – 4
  15. “Interludes and Examinations” – 6
  16. “War Without End, Part 1” – 7.5
  17. “War Without End, Part 2” – 8
  18. “Walkabout” – 4.5
  19. “Grey 17 is Missing” – 4.5
  20. “And the Rock Cried Out, No Hiding Place” – 6.5
  21. “Shadow Dancing” – 5.5
  22. “Z’Ha’Dum” – 8

There’s a step up in the ratings this season, with the average hitting 5.4 after the previous season’s 4.5. Most episodes are comfortably in the 4-6 range of “okay, but not great,” with only a few lower and several standing out higher.

This season sees a couple of changes to the cast. The Minbari-trained human ranger Marcus Cole joins the station, bringing a distinctive wry quirkiness. At times the witty, roguish, smooth character veers perilously close to being a Mary Sue, but the warmth and charm of Jason Carter’s performance is usually enough to save him from tipping over the edge. In addition, the telepath Lyta Alexander returns in a shake-up of the cast (the previous seasons’ telepath, Talia Winters, was reportedly a casualty of contract negotiations with the actor). Lyta’s return is welcome, and Patricia Tallman plays the ambiguity of the character—a human serving the mysterious Vorlons—well enough.

Along with the changes to the cast we get some significant forward motion in the larger story this season. The war with the Shadows heats up at the same time that the Earth government goes full-bore fascist. Our heroes on the Babylon 5 station are caught in the middle of both developments and have to move fast in response. Meanwhile, the Centauri invasion of Narn enters a dangerous new phase.

Our lowest-rated episode of this season is a side-story without much connection to the larger arcs. In “Exogenesis,” a 2, Marcus and Dr. Franklin investigate strange goings-on among the station’s homeless. The episode does offer Marcus and Stephen a chance to bond, but beyond that there’s not much substance to the story. It feels more like a first-season episode, a self-contained story building the background of the setting but not connected to much else.

For the best episode of this season, though, we are spoiled for choice. Four episodes get an 8 from us, with a fifth one close behind at 7.5. First there’s “Point of No Return” and “Severed Dreams,” not properly speaking a two-parter, but two episodes in a row that both see the Babylon 5 crew have to deal with the consequences of Earthgov’s violent power grabs, culminating in a watershed moment when Babylon 5 declares itself independent. The next is a proper two-parter: “War Without End,” Parts 1 and 2, a clever revisiting of the first season’s time travel story “Babylon Squared” in which we see the reappearance of the Babylon 4 station from a new perspective, and Captain Sinclair gets his send-off. Finally there’s the last episode “Z’Ha’Dum,” in which Captain Sheridan sets off to the homeworld of the Shadows to discover what drives them.

Season 3 effectively builds on what seasons 1 and 2 accomplished, and it sets the stage for the dramatic events coming in season 4. Overall, quite a strong season and worth a rewatch.

Image: Babylon 5 season 3 cover via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

Deconstructing the Star Wars Sequels: The Last Jedi

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about the storytelling structure in The Force Awakens and how it mimics the narrative shape of A New Hope without the character growth to support it. Today we look at The Last Jedi, the second and most challenging of the new trilogy movies. Where The Force Awakens was too committed to reenacting a familiar story to offer any new ideas, The Last Jedi is too much in love with its ideas to build a story around them.

Rey on the Jedi island, from Star Wars VIII: The Last Jedi

The Last Jedi does not run on nostalgia like The Force Awakens. It toys with some echoes of The Empire Strikes Back—the rebels are on the run chased by Imperial forces while the novice Jedi goes off to train with an old master, learning something about their parents along the way—but these echoes do not drive the plot the same way A New Hope did for The Force Awakens. The story of The Last Jedi is instead driven by Rian Johnson’s desire to challenge every trope and convention of the space opera that he can.

The movie does a good job posing the questions. What if the hot-shot pilot who doesn’t play by the rules is actually making things worse with his antics? What if the old master is broken by guilt and remorse and doesn’t want to train the chosen one? What if the chosen one isn’t actually all that chosen? What if the previous movie’s shadowy overhanging villain is actually a chump who gets himself bisected mid-monologue? What if the rebels and the Empire both buy their weapons from the same scummy arms dealers? What if the heroes send out a desperate last call for help in their hour of need and no one comes? The what-ifs go on and on, each of them a worthy hook to hang plot on, but none ever taking up any weight. The movie asks plenty of questions, but never gets around to the answers.

Instead of actual development for the plot and characters, we get empty gestures at development. We are clearly meant to think that Poe has Learned a Lesson by the end of the movie when Leia tells the others to follow him, but just what that lesson was and how he learned it are a mystery. Similarly, Finn’s retort to Phasma, calling himself “Rebel scum,” is framed as if it ought to mark a turning point for the character, but the rest of the movie doesn’t do the work of showing us that his relationship to the Rebellion/Resistance matters. Rey comes the nearest to having a character arc. After spending most of the movie looking to others to guide her on what being a Jedi means, she strikes out on her own and uses the Force to move rocks and save her friends. It’s the closest the movie comes to a payoff, but it barely adds anything to her development in The Force Awakens, and it’s not much to show for having Rey stuck between grumpy uncle Luke and creepy stalker Kylo for most of the movie. The structure of a narrative arc is built into the film, but the story isn’t there to fill it.

The time and narrative energy that could have been put into building the story and challenging the characters is instead spent on gambit after gambit that doesn’t pay off. Luke’s lessons teach Rey nothing. Finn and Rose’s side quest to the casino planet is pointless and deflates much of the tension built by the First Order’s pursuit of the fleeing rebels. Poe’s mutiny gets undone with a kicked-over steam vent and a blaster. The movie invests more energy into critiquing the socio-economics of a galaxy far far away than in giving our heroes anything meaningful to do.

Perhaps the most frustrating thing about this movie is how it dangles the possibility of meaningful development in front of us only to do nothing with it. Characters like Vice Admiral Holdo and Commander D’Acy are vast untapped wells of awesomeness reduced to Teaching a Man a Lesson. The number of times that important moments in the movie correspond to women with outstretched hands—from Rey lifting rocks and Leia pulling herself back out of space to Rose patting a giant horse-puppy and Holdo jumping into hyperdrive—makes it seems as though the gesture ought to mean something, it just doesn’t. Johnson’s other movies, notably his following creation, Knives Out, show that he is quite capable of handling complex story structures (something I’m not confident I can say about J. J. Abrams). In this case, though, it feels as though the director got so focused on making his movie about failure that he ended up failing to make a movie.

None of this is to say that there aren’t good things in The Last Jedi. It has some of the sequel trilogy’s sharpest dialogue and most striking visuals, from Poe’s jabs at Hux at the beginning to the red scars of battle streaming across the stark white ground of the salt planet at the end. It introduces what may in fact be the most daring idea in the new Star Wars universe: that a Jedi can come from anywhere (at least until the next movie took a big step back.) But these things arrive within a movie that is so committed to the task of deconstructing Star Wars that it deconstructs it right down to the ground and leaves nothing behind.

Image: Rey from The Last Jedi via IMDb

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Deconstructing the Star Wars Sequels: The Force Awakens

We’ve all had a few years to mull over the Star Wars sequel trilogy, and opinions are mixed. Some people love them and some hate them, but most of us seem to be in the middle, enjoying some things about the movies while feeling an overall dissatisfaction. It is, of course, true that any franchise so deeply loved as Star Wars was going to have a hard time living up to fans’ hopes with its long-awaited return. Not to mention Star Wars fans can be a particularly unpleasable lot. Still, I think a significant part of what made Episodes 7-9 feel lackluster comes from how they handle the structure of their storytelling. In this and a couple future posts, I want to dig into what that means.

Finn and Rey on the Millennium Falcon from Star Wars: The Force Awakens

The most obvious thing about the narrative structure of The Force Awakens is that it hews very close to the story of A New Hope. We start with a lost droid carrying vital information running into a potential Jedi on a backwater desert planet and end with x-wing fighters blow a giant planet-killing ship out of the sky. In between we get everything from a cantina with its own funky jazz band to rebels sneaking around the corridors of an imperial supership to rescue a captured young woman. Your cruisers can’t repel nostalgia of that magnitude.

There’s a good reason why this story doesn’t work as well as A New Hope. When he first sat down to plan out the Star Wars story, George Lucas played to his strengths, and storytelling is not one of them. For all that we think of Lucas now as the creator of one of the great stories of our time, he has always been a filmmaker first. The story of A New Hope is not particularly original, nor is it trying to be. It knowingly walks the steps of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey. The hero’s journey concept is a controversial one, its substance disputed by folklorists and its application embraced by some writers but rejected by others. But rather than delve into Campbell, I want to look at something related but simpler: the three act structure.

The three act structure is a fundamental storytelling tool that can be found in everything from fairy tales to Hollywood blockbusters. There are lots of different ways of explaining it and, just like the hero’s journey, different people have different interpretations of it, from the very basic to the immensely complex, but here’s a simple version of how it goes.

Act 1: We meet the main character and learn enough about the world they live in to care about them. The main character is faced with a problem that they must solve or there will be consequences.

Act 2: The character attempts to solve the problem but fails. Their attempt fails because they did it in a way that did not require them to change. There may be consequences for their failure, or the potential consequences of failing to solve the larger problem may grow greater.

Act 3: The character accepts that they must change, and with that change they are now able to solve the problem.

Not every story follows this pattern, to be sure, but it underlies a lot of familiar narratives. To take a well-known example, Homer’s Odyssey works along these lines. Act 1: We meet Odysseus and learn about his struggle to get home. We learn about the greedy suitors feasting all day on his meat and wine and see them scheme to kill Telemachus, force Penelope to marry one of them, and finally get their hands on Odysseus’ wealth if he does not get home. Act 2: Odysseus tries to get home, but he runs into obstacles. The worst of his problems comes from the fact that he cannot bear to slip away from the cyclops by calling himself “No one.” Instead, his pride drives him to turn around and shout out his real name, which allows the cyclops to call down Poseidon’s curse on him. It costs Odysseus his crew and ten years of wandering. Act 3: Odysseus finally gets home to Ithaca and accepts that he must disguise himself as a beggar and not give away his identity until he is ready to kill all the suitors and reclaim his home and family.

A New Hope is a textbook example of the three act structure. In Act 1 we meet Luke Skywalker and learn of the importance of bringing R2-D2 and the Death Star technical readouts to the rebels before the Empire can destroy more planets with their new weapon. In At 2, Luke attempts to solve the problem by rescuing Leia and getting the droid back to her, but without letting go of the idea that he’s just a farm boy from the sticks. It costs him his mentor and his last connection to Tatooine as Obi-Wan Kenobi sacrifices himself to let the Millennium Falcon escape the Death Star. In Act 3, the Death Star threatens the rebel base on Yavin, and Luke finally accepts that he must become more than he was and trust the Force in order to defeat the Empire.

The three act structure works best with a single character at its center so we can watch how they grow and change when faced with a challenge. (It can work with an ensemble, too, though. Take Avengers: In Act 1, we see the problem—Loki steals the cube—and meet the heroes: Iron Man, Captain America, etc. In Act 2, the heroes try to deal with Loki by each doing what they do best; it doesn’t work, Loki gets away, and Coulson dies. In Act 3, the heroes get past their differences, come together as a team, and stop Loki’s fiendish plan.) A New Hope is centered on Luke. Other characters have important moments and experience some growth—especially Han, who chooses to come back and help fight the Death Star rather than fly away with his money—but Luke’s growth into a Jedi is the core of the story.

For all that The Force Awakens does its best to follow along with A New Hope‘s story, it doesn’t have the same focus. Knowing that the Luke-Han-Leia trio was such an important part of the original trilogy, The Force Awakens spends a lot of time setting up Rey, Finn, and Poe as their new counterparts. To the extent that any character’s story provides the narrative line running through The Force Awakens, it is Finn, the mutinous stormtrooper. Finn works well as an audience surrogate character to introduce new and old fans alike to the world of the new trilogy—everything is as new to us as it is to him—but his story does not follow the three act structure. He makes his big choice at the beginning of the film, putting down his blaster and breaking Poe out of the First Order’s lock-up. In the end he chooses to go back to the world he escaped from to rescue Rey, but that is by far the least momentous change his character undergoes. Poe, for his part, is a hot-shot pilot at the start of the movie and still a hot-shot pilot at the end; he has plenty of good moments as a character, but this movie is not about what happens to him.

Rey’s story is the one that tracks most closely with Luke’s (orphan kid from a desert planet meets runaway rebel droid and discovers their Jedi powers), but the movie is not structured around Rey’s journey the same way A New Hope was structured around Luke’s. Rey starts out by running away and looking to others to solve her problem with BB-8, and in the end she comes into her own as a budding Jedi. She has a beautiful moment overcoming her fear and trusting the Force to let her mind-trick her way out of First Order holding, but the story of the movie is not her story. Rey’s growth and her confrontation with Kylo Ren are things that happen in parallel with the larger plot; they are not key to it the way Luke’s story was.

There are plenty of weaknesses in The Force Awakens, from an over-reliance on nostalgia to underbaked worldbuilding, but one of its fundamental problems is that it is so focused on rewriting A New Hope it loses sight of what A New Hope was itself rewriting. What we get in The Force Awakens is a copy of a copy, with all the flaws that come with it.

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

Rating: Babylon 5, Season 2

The second season of Babylon 5 brings in a new captain and a new look for the Minbari ambassador, and sees the larger story begin to take shape. Here’s how we rated this season’s episodes:

Babylon 5 season 2 DVD box cover
  1. “Points of Departure” – 4
  2. “Revelations” – 5.5
  3. “The Geometry of Shadows” – 2.5
  4. “A Distant Star” – 1.5
  5. “The Long Dark” – 4
  6. “A Spider in the Web” – 4
  7. “Soul Mates” – 7
  8. “A Race Through Dark Places” – 4
  9. “The Coming of Shadows” – 5.5
  10. “GROPOS” – 4
  11. “All Alone in the Night” – 4
  12. “Acts of Sacrifice” – 4.5
  13. “Hunter, Prey” – 4.5
  14. “There All the Honor Lies” – 5.5
  15. “And Now for a Word” – 4.5
  16. “In the Shadows of Z’Ha’Dum” – 8
  17. “Knives” – 4.5
  18. “Confessions and Lamentations” – 4
  19. “Divided Loyalties” – 6
  20. “The Long, Twilight Struggle” – 5.5
  21. “Comes the Inquisitor” – 0
  22. “The Fall of Night” – 6

Season 2 comes in slightly ahead of season 1, with an average rating of 4.5, up just a little from the first season’s 4.4. Most of this season’s episodes fall between 4 and 5.5, a competent if not inspiring range. Only a few stand out above this range, but not many fall under it, either. Most episodes have their weaknesses, but they also offer something worth seeing in terms of developing the story or giving the characters room to grow.

This season has two pieces of narrative heavy lifting to accomplish. The first is to establish Bruce Boxleitner’s John Sheridan as the replacement for Michael O’Hare’s Jeffery Sinclair. O’Hare bowed out of the series after the first season, as we know now, because of his increasingly difficult mental health problems, even though important elements of the ongoing story had already been tied to the character. The transition to the new station commander is a little clunky at times, but O’Hare’s decision to leave is completely understandable, and it is a credit both to Boxleitner and to the production team that they found ways to position the new captain where they needed him for the long-term story without just making him a copy of Sinclair.

The other major piece of business this season accomplishes is establishing the growing menace of the Shadows. The slow build is expertly handled, with little pieces of information filtering in, episode by episode, letting us know that something is out there, something powerful and terrifying, without giving the game away too soon. If for nothing else, the gradual build-up of the Shadows makes it worth rewatching most if not all of the season.

Our lowest-rated episode of the season is “Comes the Inquisitor,” which we gave a complete 0. In this episode, the Vorlons subject Ambassador Delenn to a cruel test of her worthiness as a tool against the rise of the Shadows. The writing is loose, the characterization weak, and the story driven too much by larger narrative needs and a giggling serial killer fanboyism, not enough by the characters within it.

At the other end of the scale, “In the Shadows of Z’Ha’Dum” gets an 8. This episode does a lot to establish important elements for the future of the series, but it remains deeply grounded in the lives and emotions of the characters themselves. Sheridan confronts the Shadows’ agent Morden about his connection to the expedition that killed Sheridan’s wife. Meanwhile, elsewhere on the station, the pseudo-fascist government of Earth extends its tendrils into Babylon 5 through the innocuous-sounding but insidious Night Watch. The tensions are high in this episode, and the actors carry it well.

Babylon 5 remains a product of a different time, not just in television but in our history. The age shows, but time has been kinder to some of its elements than to others. Some parts of season 2 feel awkwardly dated now, other parts chillingly apt. But still, it is (for the most part) worth a rewatch.

Image: Babylon 5 season 2 DVD cover via IMDb

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.